I have been in Panamá for a few days now. The atmosphere here is very Caribbean. The kaleidoscopic music, the quick staccato accent of the Spanish, and the rich racial mix of the people, all exude its interaction with the dynamic and controversial history of the Caribbean region. There is also a definitive connection to the United States: the Panama Canal. A remnant of the long history of the Canal Zone, the currencies between the two countries are fixed. One balboa (the Panamanian denomination) is equal to one dollar. For Americans coming into the country, there is no need to change money. In the course of transactions I often received change in both currencies.
I was in Panamá City, probably more than ten years ago. I accompanied a delegation of youth ministers to a continental convening of bishops and youth ministers. Most of the meeting was held at the retreat center outside of the city. I remember the many tall skyscrapers beginning to rise up from the whirl and bustle of the third-word capital.
Last week’s drive to the city from the airport amazed me. The number of high rise condominiums, hotels, and commercial buildings has grown exponentially. I could see why some refer to it as a mini-Miami. The Panamanian coast is cluttered with these audacious urban giants, each blocking the view of the other, with still newer skeletal steel frames rearing upwards and building cranes leaning over them.
In the shadow of this crowd of shimmering glass towers is a small rounded peninsula where the old city, el Casco Antiguo, still holds a colonial charm and confident, quiet grace. The broad avenues and swirling freeway overpasses of contemporary Panamá give way to streets designed for a slower time. Among the low-rise yet still majestic allure of the old colonial buildings were many churches, most within sight of one another. Each one of them had their history and charm, rooted in different religious congregations that had evangelized among the Panamanian Isthmus.
It is to this vibrant city in a small Central American country that Pope Francis has convoked the Catholic youth of the world. Panamá City as well as the country has deep roots into the past while still desperately trying to discern its future. While the choice of this city for the 2019 gathering for World Youth Day would seem an odd location, we should take note of how strategic is this little isthmus and its canal to the global trade (more on this later). Already much of the world passes through the Panamá Canal. It provides easy access between two of the planet’s great bodies of water, the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Pope Francis may have figured it was time for the world to pause for a moment of reflection and prayer at this gateway of commerce. Could this be a gateway for Catholic youth from around the globe to encounter one another at a deeper level than just the economic interests of trade? More than an encounter between east and west, could there be more than an encounter between heaven and earth?
World Youth Day 2019 in Panamá is the first of these global Catholic events to have a Marian theme, taken from the response of the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, “I am the Servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your Word.” (Lk. 1.38) Her “fiat” was a gateway, a channel of grace for the world. May her joyful words inspire us and teach us as the young pilgrims begin their journey with her Son, Jesus.